Houses of Benedictine monks: Priory of Eye

Pages 72-76

A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.

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The Benedictine priory of Eye, dedicated in honour of St. Peter, was founded by Robert Malet, in the time of the Conqueror, as a cell to the abbey of Bernay. The very liberal foundation charter gave to the monks of Eye a portion of the founder's burgage in the town of Eye, together with the tithe of the market, and the church, all the churches which then existed or might subsequently be erected in the town of Dunwich, the tithes of that town, and a three days' fair on the feast of St. Lawrence, and also the schools (scolas) of Dunwich; the churches of Badingham, 'Benseya', Benhall, Burgh, Bedfield, Brundish, Denston, 'Helegleya', 'Helegistow', Laxfield, Mells, Playford, 'Pelecoth', Sedgebrook, Stradbroke, Stoke, Sutton St. Margaret, Tattingstone, Thorndon, Thornham, Welbourn, and Wingfield; tithes and portions in several other parishes; the vills of Stoke and Badfield; land in Badingham, Fressingfield, &c.; and several mills and fisheries. After specifying his own donations at length, the founder confirmed various other donations made to the priory by his barons and other persons holding under him by military service. Among these gifts were two parts of his tithe in Huntingfield, Linstead and 'Benges', by Roger de Huntingfield; the church of St. Botolph, Iken, and two parts of his tithe in 'Clakesthorp' and 'Glenham', by William de Roville; the church and vill of Brome, by Hugh de Avilers; half the church of Gislingham, by Godard de Gislingham and his wife; the church of Braiseworth, by Geoffrey de Braiseworth, &c., &c. In further augmentation the founder gave the church of Yaxley, with all the churches and tithes of the house of Eye, together with the privilege of a four-days' fair at Eye. This charter was solemnly offered on the high altar of the church of Eye. Beatrice, sister of the founder, added to all this, by an independent charter, the gift of the hamlet (villula) of Redlingfield.

King Stephen in 1138 granted to the monks a full charter of confirmation; among the witnesses were his son Eustace and his queen Matilda. William, earl of Boulogne, son of Stephen, granted confirmation of the priory's possessions at Stoke and Occold, and the priory also received a confirmatory grant from Thomas a Becket, as archbishop of Canterbury. (fn. 1)

The exceptionally large church patronage held by this priory aroused particular attention at Rome; various popes desiring to secure some of its preferments for their friends or favourites. As early as 1251 the pope (Innocent IV) issued his mandate making provision in favour of Giles, a scholar, son of Lanfranc Rossi, of Genoa, of a benefice of the prior and convent of Eye, worth thirty or forty marks. In July, 1264, Pope Urban IV directed the Bishop of Norwich to make provision to Master Walter of Lincoln, a poor clerk, of some church in the gift of the prior and convent of Eye, usually assigned to secular clerks, his fitness as to learning and his life and conversation having been inquired into by the bishop. The bishop was also instructed to enforce residence. (fn. 2)

The taxation roll of 1291 abounds in references to the possessions of the priory of Eye. (fn. 3) The value of the spiritualities amounted to £58 14s.; the appropriated rectory of Eye was worth £33 6s. 8d. a year, All Saints', Dunwich, £10 13s. 4d., and Playford £8; and there were appropriations of pensions and portions from twenty-six other churches. The temporalities, from twenty different manors or parishes, amounted to the annual value of £65 10s. 9¼d., giving a full total of £124 4s. 9¼d.

The full accounts of the manor of Eye for 1297-8, when it was in the hands of the crown owing to the war with France, are extant. They show that the total receipts from rents, manorial court dues, &c. amounted to £54 5s. 5d., whilst the expenses were £4 1s. 4¾d.

The accounts for the same year of other property of the priory, paid to the receivers or crown bailiffs, show that the tithes of the chapel of Badingham and of the churches of St. Leonard and All Saints, Dunwich, together with certain rents, amounted to £33 11s. 10½d.; the sale of corn realized £39 8s. 3d. These items, with certain smaller amounts, produced a total of £73 13s. 1½d. But the outgoings were £49 2s. 4¼d.; of this sum £37 8s. 6¼d. were spent on the sustenance of the nine monks of the priory. The clear total handed to the crown that year from the priory seems to have been £74 14s. 9½d. (fn. 4)

An extent of the possessions of Eye taken in 1370, during the war of Edward III with France, gives its total annual value as £123 11s. 8d. (fn. 5)

The Valor of 1535 gives £112 19s. 5¾d. as the clear annual value of the temporalities from the manors of Eye, Stoke, 'Acolt', Laxfield, Bedfield, and Fressingfield. As to the spiritualities, the churches of Laxfield, Yaxley, All Saints, Dunwich, and Playford in Suffolk, and Barchly and Sedgebrook in Lincoln, were appropriated to the priory. They also received portions or pensions from twenty-three Suffolk churches, with one from Essex, two from Lincoln, and two from Norfolk, yielding a total income in spiritualities of £71 10s. 2d. But the outgoings from this part of their income were so considerable, including £14 12s. 4d. given to the poor, that the clear value was only £23 7s. 4½d., leaving a total income of £161 2s. 3¼d. (fn. 6)

The income of the monks, on the eve of dissolution, would certainly have been higher, had it not been for their serious losses at Dunwich from the incursions of the sea. There was only one church at Dunwich, dedicated to St. Felix, in the days of the Confessor, but two more were built in the reign of the Conqueror, and several others shortly afterwards, so that there were churches of St. Felix, St. Leonard, St. John Baptist, St. Martin, St. Nicholas, St. Peter, St. Michael, St. Bartholomew, All Saints, and the Templars' church of St. Mary, by the beginning of the thirteenth century. St. Felix and the cell of the priory of Eye (which is noticed independently) were among the first to perish, and these were followed, at about 1300, by the loss of St. Leonard's church. (fn. 7) About 1331, the sea swallowed up the churches of St. Bartholomew and St. Michael. (fn. 8) The last institution to St. Martin's was in 1335, and to St. Nicholas's in 1352. St. John Baptist's church was taken down to save the materials from the sea in 1540. St. Peter's was not pulled down till 1702. (fn. 9) The ruins of All Saints' are now gradually disappearing over the cliff.

In 1291 the taxation roll shows that their total income from Dunwich was £40 2s. 2d. at that date. In 1535 they had no income in temporalities from Dunwich, and merely received £10 13s. 4d. from the rectory of All Saints, a portion of 13s. 4d. from the church of St. John, and a general pension from the remains of other parishes of 26s. 8d.

In April, 1296, the king, when at Berwickon-Tweed, instructed the treasurer and barons of the Exchequer to cause the custody of the priory of Eye to be restored to Edmund earl of Cornwall, to be held by writ of Exchequer, securing the right of the king and others; for the king had learnt from an inquisition that Edmund took the custody of the priory into his hands on Thursday before Palm Sunday, 1294, as true patron and advocate (advocatus) thereof, by reason of the death of Richard the late prior; and that Richard, Edmund's father, had always had the custody in times of voidance; and that on the eve of St. Andrew, 1295, Richard Oysel, by reason of the king's orders to take into the king's hands (on account of the war) the alien houses in Norfolk and Suffolk, ejected the earl and his men from the priory and barns and outer manors. (fn. 10)

On the death of Prior Nicholas Ivelyn, in 1313, a dispute again arose as to the charge of the priory during the vacancy. The king's escheator and his bailiffs of the honour of Eye seized into the king's hands the priory with its appurtenances. The alleged reason for this action was that the advowson had fallen in by the death of Margaret, late the wife of Edmund earl of Cornwall, who held it in dower by grant of her husband of the king's inheritance. But the sub-prior and convent represented that Eye Priory was founded by Robert Malet as a cell of the abbey of Bernay in Normandy, and that neither the founder nor his heirs, nor Henry III, into whose hands the priory fell as an escheat by forfeiture, nor the earls of Cornwall, who afterwards held the advowson as a gift of Henry III, were accustomed to receive anything out of the priory at time of voidance, but only to appoint a warden or janitor for the gates of the house, who had during voidance merely a competent sustenance as a token of their dominion. A commission was appointed on 17 July to inquire as to this, and on 10 August the temporalities were restored to Durand Frowe, who had been preferred by the abbot of Bernay to be prior of Eye. (fn. 11) In October, 1313, the king's licence was obtained for the appropriation of the church of Laxfield, the advowson of which was already held of the priory; for this licence a fine of £20 was paid by the prior. (fn. 12) The appropriation of Laxfield was not, however, carried out until 10 January, 1326. Ten days later grant was made by Edward II assuring the priory of the payment as before to them of the pensions out of the churches of Thorndon and Mells, the advowsons of which they had quitclaimed to the king. (fn. 13)

The farm of £94 10s. due from the alien priory of Eye was assigned by Edward III, in 1347, to the king's scholars at Cambridge, during the war. (fn. 14)

At the special request of the queen, their patron, and on payment of a fine of £60, the alien prior and convent of Eye were, in 1385, granted a charter of denization. The priors were henceforth to be Englishmen. No subsidy was hereafter to be exacted from them as aliens, but the priory was in all respects to be like that of Thetford. It was stated that at this time, through ill-government, the priory had become so impoverished that it could hardly maintain a prior and three or four monks. Certain persons had, however, promised to relieve and repair it when nationalized. (fn. 15)

The visitations of this house during the latter part of its existence are much to its credit. Archdeacon Goldwell, as commissary of his brother the bishop, visited this priory in February, 1494, when Richard Norwich the prior and nine monks were present. It was found that no reform was needed. (fn. 16) The next recorded visitation was in August, 1514, when Bishop Nykke visited in person. Three of the eight monks who were examined testified omnia bene. The rest made various complaints, the nature of which appears in the bishop's injunctions. The bishop ordered the prior to procure the return of the books lent to Doctor White before Christmas, and to exhibit a true inventory and statement of accounts before the Michaelmas synod; he also ordered that Margery, the washerwoman, was not for the future to enter the priory precincts. The visitation was adjourned until Michaelmas. (fn. 17)

The suffragan Bishop of Chalcedon and other commissaries visited in August, 1520. Richard Bettys, the prior, expressed himself as in every way satisfied; but the eight monks all gave utterance to their suspicions of the prior's dealings with one Margery Verre or Veer. It was also complained that the prior had presented no accounts since the first year of his appointment, and that he had sold certain silver bowls. The commissaries were evidently not satisfied, for the visitation was adjourned until Christmas. (fn. 18)

The visitation of July, 1526, by Bishop Nykke in person, when John Eia was prior, was quite satisfactory. The nine monks, as well as the prior, were severally examined by the bishop; none of them knew of anything needing reform, save the negligent keeping of the common seal, which was mentioned by the subchanter. The bishop ordered a chest to be prepared with three locks and keys, and dissolved the visitation. (fn. 19)

The last recorded visitation was also personally conducted by Bishop Nykke in July, 1532. William Hadley, the prior, presented his accounts showing a balance in hand of 49s. 5¾d. It appeared that the common seal was still kept in a coffer with only one key. Complaint was made that they had two ordinals, one old and one new, and that there were erasures in both leading to confusion and dispute. Eight monks were examined in addition to the prior. A page is left in the register for Reformanda, but it has never been filled up. (fn. 20)

The acknowledgement of the king's supremacy was signed in the chapter-house by William the prior, William Norwich the sub-prior, and six others, on 20 October, 1534. (fn. 21)

The Suffolk commissioners visited this priory on 26 August, 1536, and drew up a complete inventory of goods and chattels. The furniture of the high altar and quire was of trifling value, the only item of moment being 'one payer of old organs ner to the Qwyer lytell worth, at xs.' There were small 'tables' of alabaster both in the lady chapel and the chapel of St. Nicholas. In the vestry was silver to the value of £13 4s. 6d., including three chalices and a pair of censers. In addition to a variety of vestments were 'iii lytell boxes of sylver with relyques, vs.' 'an arme of tymber garnysshed with sylver called Saint Blasis arme, at vis. viiid.' and 'a lytell piece of timber with a piece of a rybbe in it, at xd.' 'An old masse boke called the redde boke of Eye garnysshed with a lytell sylver on the one side, the residewe lytell worth, xxd.,' refers to the book of St. Felix from the destroyed cell of Dunwich; the 20d. would be the value of a silver boss or corner, the residue in reality was simply priceless. (fn. 22)

The contents of the 'Queen's chamber' were valued at 7s. 2d., the 'paynted chamber' 5s., the 'inner chamber' 3s. 4d., and the 'grene chamber' 10s. 10d. In the pantry were some silver spoons, a goblet, a salt, and four masers with silver bands. The simple contents of the kitchen, bakehouse, brewery and parlour are also set forth, as well as cattle worth £6 19s. 8d., and £10 as the value of the 'Corne growynge opon the demaynes.' The total came to £45 17s. 10d. (fn. 23)

The formal suppression of the house took place on 12 February, 1536-7, (fn. 24) and on 7 April, 1537, the site of the priory and the whole of its possessions were granted to Charles duke of Suffolk. (fn. 25)

A pension of £18 was granted to William Parker, the prior. (fn. 26)

Priors of Eye

Hubert, temp. William the Conqueror and Henry I (fn. 27)

Gauselins, temp. Henry I (fn. 28)

Osbert, temp. Henry II (fn. 29)

Roger, died 2 id. April (fn. 30)

Godwinus, died 5 id. April

Silvester Bolton, died 16 kal. Mart

William de Sancto Petro, died 2 id. December

John Belyng, died 13 kal. January

Wakelin, temp. John (fn. 31)

Roger, occurs 1202, 1215, 1228, 1232, 1235 (fn. 32)

Richard Jacob, occurs 1237 (fn. 33)

William Puleyn, occurs 1242, 1244, 1255, 1276, 1282 (fn. 34)

Nicholas Ivelyn, appointed 1300 (fn. 35)

Durand Frowe, appointed 1313 (fn. 36)

Robert Morpayn, appointed 1323 (fn. 37)

Michael Renard, died 1380 (fn. 38)

John de Farnham, appointed 1380 (fn. 39)

Thomas de Fakenham, appointed 1391 (fn. 40)

Silvester Bolton, appointed 1431 (fn. 41)

John Eye, appointed 1433 (fn. 42)

Thomas Cambrigg, appointed 1440 (fn. 43)

Thomas Norwych, appointed 1462 (fn. 44)

Augustine Sceltone, occurs 1487 (fn. 45)

Richard Norwich, occurs 1492 (fn. 46)

Richard Bettys, occurs 1520 (fn. 47)

John Eia, occurs 1526 (fn. 48)

William Hadley, occurs 1532 (fn. 49)

William Parker, surrendered 1536-7 (fn. 50)

The first seal of the priory represents St. Peter, full length, in the right hand two keys, and in the left an open book. Over his shoulders are a crescent and a star. Legend:—

† SIGILL' . . . NTUS. SAN . . . E . . . (fn. 51)


  • 1. These five charters are cited at length in Dugdale's Mon. iii, 404-6. Bishop Tanner quotes from two chartularies of Eye, the whereabouts of which are not now known. Fortunately, however, in the collections of Sir Symonds D'Ewes there are transcripts or abstracts of the contents of both. The volume containing them is Harl. MS. 639; fols. 58-68 give the abstracts from the chartulary known as 'Malet', and fols. 68-71 of that known as 'Danoun.' The first of these gives full copies of the five charters that appear in the Mon. and of various compositions as to tithes, and of charters of Kings Richard I, John, and Henry III, and of Popes Adrian and Innocent III, and Richard, king of the Romans; there is nothing later than Henry III's reign. 'Danoun' is shorter, and is chiefly concerned with the rentals and custumaries of different manors.
  • 2. Cal. Pap. Reg. i, 273, 414.
  • 3. Pope Nich. Tax (Rec. Com.), 60b, 62, 80, 84b, 115b, 116, 116b, 117b, 118, 118b, 123, 123b, 125b, 127, 127b, 128b, 129b, 130b.
  • 4. Mins. Accts. bdle. 996, No. 12. Certain of the spiritualities escaped record in these accounts.
  • 5. Add. MS. 6164, fol. 424; Dugdale, Mon. iii. 407-8, where it is set forth in full.
  • 6. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 476-7.
  • 7. Gardner, Hist. of Dunwich (1754), passim.
  • 8. Harl. MS. 639, fol. 71, where it is said that the fruits of these two parish churches had been worth £40 to the monks.
  • 9. Gardner, passim.
  • 10. Close, 24 Edw. I, m. 8.
  • 11. Pat. 7 Edw. II, pt. i, mm. 16, 19 d.
  • 12. Ibid. m. 8.
  • 13. Ibid. 19 Edw. II, pt. 1, m. 6.
  • 14. Ibid. 20 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 9.
  • 15. Ibid. 8 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 3.
  • 16. Jessopp, Visit. 40.
  • 17. Jessopp, Visit. 140-2.
  • 18. Ibid. 183-5.
  • 19. Ibid. 221-3.
  • 20. Ibid. 294-6.
  • 21. Rymer, Foedera, xiv, 515.
  • 22. See account of Dunwich Priory.
  • 23. Suff. Arch. Inst. Proc. viii, 105-8.
  • 24. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 510.
  • 25. Ibid. 1103 (11).
  • 26. Ibid. xiii (1), 1520.
  • 27. Chartul. Danoun, 49, 675.
  • 28. Ibid. 67b; Malet, 22.
  • 29. Chartul. Malet, 32b; Danoun, 67b.
  • 30. These next five priors occur in a list in the Danoun chartulary, with the days of their obits, but no year. Reg. Eye, fol. 23. This is a register of Eye in the possession of the Marquis of Cornwallis. Of this register Mr. Davy made an abstract in 1814 (Add. MS. 19089, pp. 196-344); Chartul. Danoun, fol. 66b.
  • 31. Reg. Eye, fols. 39, 70.
  • 32. Ibid. fols. 50, 51.
  • 33. Chartul. Danoun, 66b.
  • 34. Ibid. fols. 30, 47, 55; Chartul. Malet, 50b: Danoun, 67.
  • 35. Norwich Epis. Reg. i, 16.
  • 36. Pat. 7 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 8.
  • 37. Norwich Epis. Reg. i, 102; Pat. 17 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 27.
  • 38. Norw. Epis. Reg. vi, 71.
  • 39. Norwich Epis. Reg. vi, 71.
  • 40. Ibid. vi, 158.
  • 41. Ibid. ix, 51.
  • 42. Ibid. ix, 68.
  • 43. Ibid. x, 36.
  • 44. Ibid. xi, 134.
  • 45. Harl. MS. 639, fol. 64a.
  • 46. Cott. MS. xxvii, fol. 90b.
  • 47. Jessopp, Visit. 183.
  • 48. Ibid. 221.
  • 49. Ibid. 295.
  • 50. Pensioned; L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 510.
  • 51. B.M. Cast lxxi, p. 109; Dugdale, Mon. iii, pt. xix, fig. 5, from Harl. Chart. 44, D. 42.